Fourth Industrial Revolution: Promise or Peril

Seeing technology evolve in a way we have never seen before, what does our future hold, will it be for the good, or lead to a dystopian world?

By Lewis Guy | @LGJournalism. Image by ThisIsEngineering

We are living in a world of constant evolution, with technology being the driving factor whether that’s communication, transportation, or manufacture, we simply couldn’t live without it. The Fourth Industrial Revolution is changing the way we live and shaping our future at an unprecedented rate with no means of slowing down. VR is just the tip of the iceberg and one of many components to come out of the current revolution, however, will it lead us to a world of unemployment and no privacy or will it guide us to more opportunities and a happier, healthier life.

Industrial Revolutions have played a key part in human evolution, dating back to the first in the 18th century which saw the developments in materials, such as iron and steel, and introduced the use of new energy resources, such as coal, electricity, and petroleum. The second, dated between 1870 and 1914, saw major technological advancements in what we see as basic technology today, such as the telephone, electric lights, and motion pictures. Both of these Industrial Revolutions were key for society to move forward by revolutionising the way we mass produce materials and energy. Post-World War Two saw the introduction to the Third Industrial Revolution, commonly known as the Digital Revolution. This period, between 1970 and 2010, was characterised by the spread of automation and digitisation through the use of electronics and computers. This was vital to set the stage for the Fourth Industrial Revolution to take place to build on the technological advancements and take them one step further.

The technology we have access to in today’s world would have been seen as futuristic not so long ago, when it comes to virtual reality and artificial intelligence, two of the main developing concepts of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Unlike before, with the assistance of the high standard of technology we have today, new technological advancements are developing at a rate where flying cars could be commercially available by 2024. To put this idea into context, it took 75 years for the telephone to reach 100 million users, only two years for social media site Instagram and just a single month for the mobile game Pokémon Go. The rise of social media and the importance of having a mobile device nearby at all times has galvanised the way the world communicates and educates themselves. Billions of people are connected worldwide by mobile phones, holding almost every answer to every question, and having the ability to speak to someone on the other side of the planet is a given at this point. Social media has been the key to pushing society into a digital world, ultimately allowing people to be able to disconnect from the real world. 

A survey held with young people, aged around 18, showed their average daily screen time is between 5 and 10 hours, corresponding to the average 7.5 hours on a wider basis. However, this doesn’t mean that teenagers are spending all of this time scrolling through their social media feeds, it can also reflect the positives of phones with the power of the internet to assist their studying and knowledge on real world events. The power of connecting people worldwide from the comfort of their homes was evidently highlighted through the Covid-19 pandemic as it allowed families and friends to communicate safely, enabled students to learn online, and helped businesses stay afloat. After lockdown restrictions had been lifted, many businesses questioned the need for physical interaction after having to trial online meetings during the pandemic. This dependence on technological advancements is mirrored when thinking about manufacturing. Every Industrial Revolution has seen development in manufacturing, shifting reliance from human work to machinery. From performing surgery to machine manufacturing, one of the Fourth Industrial Revolution’s biggest yet controversial developments is artificial intelligence. Artificial intelligence advancements are the next wave for industrial impact with robotics becoming more and more human-like. Being able to perform operations and build machines without the risk of human error is a huge worry for employees. Machinery being able to work 24/7 and more efficiently at a cheaper rate is making companies reconsider how their workplace functions. Despite this, they still need to keep a happy workplace and their human values by not replacing workers with this new wave of desirable technology.

As well as artificial intelligence, virtual reality has become a well-known introduction with the Fourth Industrial Revolution. VR has been a hit amongst gaming fans with it taking video games to the next level. Instead of sitting down and looking at a screen, turning a joystick to move and pressing a button to perform an action, VR has enabled gamers to enter a world where their own movements coincide with the character inside the game.

“Having worked in games for 17 years, I still can’t tell you what a game is”, Rob Yescombe tells me. “It’s such an amorphous, loose medium, you can create something that is completely different to what has come before.” Rob has worked in the game and television industry for 17 years as a writer and narrative director, with work ranging from Tom Clancy’s The Division to Netflix series, Outside the Wire. For the past few years he has been delving into VR storytelling, and has a strong, experienced vision of how VR will shape our future. He began by explaining his continued interest working in the game and TV industry due to its constant evolution and uncertainty of what’s next, “seeing technology evolve in a medium where the way the technology is applied is not consistent”. This mirrors the development of the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the unprecedented rate in which the speed of the technology he uses is constantly evolving. He further explained this point by pointing out that he still couldn’t tell me what a game is due to it being such an amorphous, loose medium where you can create something that has never been imagined before.

I then wanted to find out about his work with VR and where it could be leading to in the future. Rob started by explaining the revived excitement of small, unnoticeable features of a game with VR allowing you to feel every action and movement the character makes, “Even mechanics that once had either little meaning or had become boring, are now suddenly exciting again”. Rob points to the example of reloading a gun in Call of Duty, where you would usually press X to reload on a flat game, through virtual reality, you can now experience that animation, giving everything a much bigger role  to play. “The bit that is exciting about VR is the one to one between my behaviour and the avatars behaviour.” This plays a big role in the popularity of VR games as it enhances the players perception and creates a realistic atmosphere, one that is currently being built on with the addition of including the player’s senses into VR games through glove accessories. He then explained the pivotal role of the player who he believes has control of their enjoyment, not the designers.

“The bit that is exciting about VR is the one to one between my behaviour and the avatars behaviour.”

In terms of developing current VR technology, there has been an ongoing trend of making it smaller and cheaper. Having virtual reality in gaming already hit the highstreets and popular amongst millions, developers look to minimise accessories even to the point of microchips. Rob touched upon this also referring to the idea of going smaller and cheaper. He explained the process of this, going from cable to non-cable, which is currently happening now with the Oculus Quest, and then to glasses to contact lenses and then to the brain. This could coincide with the introduction of Elon Musk’s Neuralink which looks to shift a person’s consciousness into a virtual reality.

Finally, we discussed the possibility of virtual reality going down a darker route into a dystopian future, one which Yescombe believes we are already in. With virtual reality being able to mimic the user’s perception, it feels we are one step into the next generation of technology’s manipulation. This could lead to multiple different scenarios to the point where movies and shows, like Black Mirror, seem somewhat realistic.

“Any platform that can alter someone’s perception is subject to manipulation”

Virtual reality has had a huge impact due to the Fourth Industrial Revolution, however, AI development is the most impactful factor when it comes to how significant it is in our everyday lives. This year, 50% of companies believe that automation will decrease their numbers of full-time staff. By 2030, robots will replace 800 million workers across the world. Every Industrial Revolution has seen new machines take people’s jobs due to them being more efficient, able to work 24/7 and posing no risk of human error or calling in sick. One huge take from the Covid-19 pandemic was a shift of attitude by business owners on how they run their companies. Due to physical contact being restricted, workers had to adapt to this environment and communicate online. How they managed to handle this hurdle has changed their view on running their company, questioning if it is financially beneficial to relocate to the digital world. An alternative to this is the new wave of jobs the Fourth Industrial Revolution has created: a range of roles linked with current technological advancements. Having new technology means they need operators and coders, and the broadening of social media has opened a gateway for digital marketing and influencers to use this ongoing popularisation to their advantage and create a living from it. 

The Fourth Industrial Revolution will take humanity to its next step in our and future generations lives. Will this lead to the corruption of our privacy or allow us more worldwide connection? Only time will tell.


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